Croatia's bewitching brand of authentic Mediterranean magic makes it an ideal retreat for couples. Joanna Booth reports
When a destination gets the nod from the likes of Angelina Jolie, Beyoncé and Jay-Z, you can be pretty sure it’s made the move from ‘emerging’ to ‘emerged’.
Less frivolous benchmarks concur. Croatia will join the EU on July 1, while in October travel’s great and good will head to Dubrovnik for Abta’s Travel Convention.
Airlines are adding flights apace, with British Airways returning to Zagreb, easyJet adding an Edinburgh-Dubrovnik route, Thomson doubling capacity to Istria and Jet2.com following suit to Pula, Norwegian Air launching services from Gatwick to Split and Dubrovnik, and Ryanair opening its first base in the country, in Zadar.
UK visitor numbers rose 24% year-on-year in 2012, and 2013 looks set to be a success too. But despite its move to the mainstream, Croatia doesn’t have to feel mass-market. Couples, in particular, will find a country with much to offer – pretty boutique hotels in old walled cities, villas in sleepy coastal villages, and island-hopping itineraries on yachts and small traditional wooden cruisers. There’s a huge amount on offer; the following is a taster.
Nicknamed Pearl of the Adriatic, Dubrovnik deserves its epithet. Its old town is a beguiling cluster of red-roofed houses and honey-coloured streets ripe for wandering hand-in-hand – though couples should let go for long enough to grip a cornet, as Croatians make great ice cream.
In the middle ages it was a city-state with the heft to rival Venice, and churches, palaces and fountains abound. Walking the 2km-long city wall is a must, but recommend clients go early or late in the day as the lack of shade can make it hot work in the midday sun.
Cosmos Holidays recommends visiting in June or September, when the weather is pleasantly warm and the city not crowded with cruise passengers. The operator offers a range of Dubrovnik city breaks, with flights from Birmingham, Gatwick and Manchester. A three-night stay on a half-board basis at the four-diamond-rated Grand Hotel Park starts from £325 including flights from Birmingham and transfers.
Dubrovnik’s nightlife is famed, with a great choice of bars, restaurants and live music. Recommend Café Bar Buza for the best sunset views in the city. Hidden through a small, gated hole in the city walls, the bar nestles among the rocks of the shore and snakes down to the water. Small tables are dotted along the cliffside and there’s no better spot to enjoy a bottle of chilled Karlovacko, Croatia’s national beer, or a glass of Posip, the country’s most-renowned white wine.
Balkan Holidays sales and marketing manager Rupert Diggins says: “Dubrovnik has a fantastic choice of five-star hotels. Use Dubrovnik as a base and travellers can also enjoy excursions to a botanical garden, an oyster farm, a fishing picnic, or a day trip to Montenegro or Mostar in Bosnia and Herzegovina.”
Dubrovnik’s outlying islands of Lokrum, Lopud and Mljet are easily reached by ferry, offering contrasts of wooded scenery and beaches. Cresta Holidays offers an island cruise excursion for £43 and a day trip to Montenegro – just an hour’s drive away – for £46.
Many of Croatia’s beaches are pebbly rather than sandy, but the water is stunningly clear and it is easy to find secluded coves away from the crowds – just the thing for those holidaying à deux.
Explore Croatia, the specialist operator that launched in January, features a wide range of apartments and villas on the coast, perfect for lazy seaside stays. Couples travelling in a group with friends will enjoy the easy sociability of a villa with a private pool – something like the Villa Holiday in Orebic, for example, which sits next to long sandy and pebbly beaches on the Peljesac peninsula, a slender spit of land protruding into the Adriatic north of Dubrovnik.
Sleeping eight in two double and two twin rooms, the new property has a private pool, large terrace and modern kitchen. Explore Croatia offers a week here from £538 per person in June based on eight sharing, including flights from Gatwick and car hire.
Couples who want their own space can choose an apartment. Also on the Peljesac peninsula, near the sleepy village of Viganj, the EOL Apartments are spacious, airy and beautifully furnished, all with sea-view terraces and a shared pool and barbecue. A seven-night stay in a one-bedroom apartment starts from £606 twin-share, including flights from Gatwick and car hire.
For those who prefer a hotel to a villa or apartment, Cosmos recommends a stay on quiet, car free, carefree Lopud island, just an hour by boat from Dubrovnik. There’s a cute harbour and, on the other side of the island, a little over a mile’s walk away – a sandy beach. A week’s half-board at the four-diamond-rated La Fodia Sea Resort starts from £520 including flights. The hotel is right on the beach and offers a range of activities from canoeing to cycling.
If you thought Greece was the only spot for island-hopping in the Med, think again. Visitors rave about Croatia’s clear, blue waters, and there’s a real range of islands, including green Mljet, a national park, Korcula, home to exquisite Venetian architecture, Brac, where you’ll find one of Croatia’s best beaches, and chic Hvar, a favourite with celebrities and the glamorous yachting crowd. These Dalmatian coast islands, easily accessed from Dubrovnik and Split, are the most popular for hopping.
Couples will love the intimacy of a small ship cruise, with lazy days spent sunbathing on deck, swimming from the ship in secluded bays and stopping off for sightseeing and cafe culture on the islands. The Princess Aloha is a new ship this year, with 19 cabins, a spacious sun deck, covered dining terrace and swimming platform.
Anatolian Sky, which started selling Croatia this year, offers two seven-night itineraries out of Dubrovnik, with prices in October starting from £1,349 including half-board accommodation, flights from Gatwick and transfers. Anatolian Sky managing director Akin Koc says: “We have seen an excellent response to our Adriatic cruising programme and plan to add more high-quality boats for next year.”
Some islands are closely grouped, so even travelling by ferry isn’t an uncomfortable option. Intrepid Travel offers a seven-night small group tour from Dubrovnik to Split via the islands of Hvar and Korcula by ferry, overnighting in small hotels and guesthouses, from £795 excluding flights.
Explore’s Cycle and Cruise Croatia suits active couples, with seven nights on board a traditional wooden ‘oldtimer’ boat and the days spent exploring islands including Mljet and Korcula on two wheels. Tours depart in June and September, and prices start from £1,284, including flights, accommodation, meals, bike hire and the services of a tour leader and boat crew. The tour is graded as easy and covers just 66 miles over six days, so there’s no need to be Bradley Wiggins.
For those who are more Ben Ainsley than Bradley, book a berth on Intrepid Travel’s seven-day Sail Croatia. There’s an experienced skipper on board, but guests can help if they want, so it’s ideal for those who want to get a taste of what it’s like to sail a yacht without the expense or commitment of chartering their own boat. Prices start from £740 excluding flights, but including accommodation in a twin-berth cabin (there’s a maximum of eight passengers), snorkelling equipment and excursions on land.
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